Profiting Big From Football's Popularity

If there’s one sport out there that’s synonymous with profit, it’s football. The game brings in billions in revenue through ticket sales, cable contracts and licensing fees and sales of merchandise and apparel.

This Sunday’s Super Bowl is expected to draw a record 100 million viewers, according to market research firm IBISWorld, prompting CBS (CBS), the broadcast network carrying the game, to charge an average of $2.7 million per 30-second commercial.

But amid all the fervor surrounding the sport, corporate behemoths like CBS and the NFL are not the only winners. Some enterprising small business owners are capitalizing on America’s passion for pigskin. Here are three small businesses that are cashing in on America’s love of football.

From Photos to Footballs

While its popularity as a spectator sport is unparalleled, the relative ease with which one can form a game of two-hand touch only increases the game’s appeal. Paul Cunningham decided to profit from that appeal when he began making his hand-made leather footballs last fall.

“Football is immensely popular in this country,” said Cunningham, maker of Leatherhead Footballs, the hand-made footballs he started selling online last September. “Several hundred footballs is what I’ve sold in that very short time span — and this is, again, without any promotion.”

“I couldn’t sustain the business with just the baseball. I needed to expand it into other products that…had more marketability,” Cunningham said.

WATCH: Paul Cunningham make his hand-made leather footballs. 

Cunningham left his day job as photo editor for Major League Baseball, to pursue his hobby of making hand-made vintage leather baseballs out of his house in New Jersey. Last September, he decided to diversify his business from baseballs to include footballs and now football sales make up 95% of his business.

Cunningham’s leather footballs are priced at $98 each, and even though some customers buy them as display pieces, he designed them to be played with. Ultimately, he would like to expand the business out of his house and start selling the footballs through a high-end retailer.

Living the Fantasy

Fantasy football, another industry that has ballooned as a result of football’s enormous fan base, allowed Scott Swanay to start his own small business,, giving personalized advice to fans on their fantasy football teams.

“I’m sort of the fantasy sports equivalent of a financial advisor for people who play fantasy football,” Swanay said. “Instead of telling them which stocks to go after and stay away from, I’m telling them which football players to go after and stay away from.”

Swanay thought up the idea after he helped a friend manage her fantasy baseball team in 2006.

He applied the skills he used at his day job as an actuary for an insurance agency to analyze data on the players and teams, but felt there was plenty of information that wasn’t available. So he created an algorithm that would adapt the data he collected to the specifications of an individual league’s scoring settings and roster requirements, thereby generating customized player rankings.

“You can go and buy a magazine that would give you rankings and ratings and all but their not customizable,” Swanay said. “You can customize and use your leagues unique scoring settings and roster requirements to generate your player rankings so you’re not using rankings for someone else.”

Swanay offers the advice through a subscription service and is now running the business full time. He says he’s doing quite well, and plans to add subscription advice for fantasy basketball and hockey.

Swanay thinks the smaller number of games has helped increase the popularity of football nationally.

“Baseball is like a soap opera; you have to keep up on it every day,” Swanay said. “Football is more like your weekly show that you wait to watch each week.”

Tailgating to Profit

NFL fan Jason Wotman knows all about that zeal many fans feel for football: he and two of his best friends grew up going to New York Jets games as often as they could. Wotman and his friends loved the entire experience of going to the games, and would go hours ahead of kickoff to tailgate in the parking lot.

On one particular occasion, the group forgot to clean up the tailgate and put away the grill in their zest to go cheer on their Jets. When they returned to the parking lot after the game ended, their grill was gone, but the idea for a small business was born.

“If a group decides they want to go to the game and tailgate but don’t want to deal with the hassle of it, they can order right from our website and then we’ll deliver right to their car,” said Wotman, the 24-year-old co-founder of Tailwaiters, Inc. “We’ll show up with the grill — they’re on wheels and we have push carts with all the equipment on it.”

The three New York natives started catering tailgates at the start of the 2008 football season and the business has taken off from there. The company has been profitable since the middle of 2009.In addition to catering tailgates at Giants and Jets games, Tailwaiters’ services are offered as a catering option to people who purchase group tickets to go to New York Red Bulls Soccer games and they’ve also been successful in catering tailgates at concerts in the summer.

Although they love tailgating any event, Wotman said football fans are their bread and butter.

“You want to talk about die-hard fans — football’s got the best of them for any team,” Wotman said. “Football fans are the true tailgaters. They’re the only ones that will stand out in 15 degree weather for four hours to get fired up for a game.”